On July 26th, the democratically elected president of Niger Mohamed Bazoum was deposed in a military coup. This coup seemingly came out of nowhere. Now, a country that had been a key US ally and a French ally in the region is suddenly in turmoil. There is also a good deal of concern that the new Nigerienne junta may turn to Moscow for support, just like the coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Joining me to discuss the coup in Niger and what comes next is Leonardo Villalón, professor of African Politics at the The University of Florida. We kick off discussing the possible motivations of the coup leaders and then have a long conversation about the domestic, regional and geopolitical implications of this coup.
Transcript Excerpts. Full transcript freely available to email newsletter subscribers.
Is Russia Behind the Coup in Niger?
Mark Leon Goldberg: The future of French and American military involvement in Niger is uncertain. And it does appear, however, that the coup leaders are making overtures to Russia or to the Wagner group. I take it that a member of the coup team recently visited Burkina Faso, where he met with coup leaders there and Wagner representatives there as well. Is that your sense of what’s happening? [00:21:09][32.9]
Leonardo Villalón: Well, it’s hard to tell, but here’s my sense: The number two of this junta now in charge in Niger visited Mali and Burkina Faso. It’s not surprising because this they need support in Mali. And Burkina issued a statement a few days ago saying that they would consider an invasion or an attack on Niger as an attack, a declaration of war against them, that they should ready to participate in solidarity, etc.. So this regime is obviously has a strong interest in reaching out to potential allies and friends in the region. [00:21:39][28.9]
Leonardo Villalón: But about what this means in terms of a turn towards Russia — there is no indication that either any members of this current Junta had any particular disposition or any particular sort of ideological orientation towards Russia — or for that matter, anti-French sentiment. It does not seem to have been sort of a precipitating cause for the coup. What I think is, however, happening is that they need to support having led a coup that didn’t have any immediate precipitating cause. There weren’t crowds on the street, there wasn’t a political blockage. All of a sudden, for somewhat personal reasons, they had a falling out with the president and have taken over, they need to find a way to legitimate it and to frame the justification for this coup and to mobilize people in support, particularly if they’re facing an imminent invasion or a military intervention from the outside. And inevitably anti-French resonates. You can mobilize people on the streets and the anti-French slips into pro-Russian very easily in the context of the Sahel right now. And so I think that’s the dilemma that France and the United States are facing, is that you don’t want to encourage that. Anything you do to try to intervene is only likely to backfire against you in terms of popular sentiment, popular support. And so doing nothing sort of allows it to consolidate. Doing something may make it even worse. And I think that’s the dilemma. So there’s no indication that this sort of anti-French sentiment and or pro-Russian sentiment were in any way as a cause of this coup or even there at the beginning. But it’s almost certain that going to be part of the rhetoric of this country to try to maintain itself.
What Does the Coup Mean for the Future of Democracy in Niger and for the People of Niger?
Mark Leon Goldberg: So lastly, our conversation has focused a lot on like the international implications of this coup in Niger and what it means for ECOWAS, what it means for the United States, for French foreign policy. And it seems like a lot of media coverage follows those threads, and not a lot of media coverage focuses on what it means for the people of Niger. What do you suspect to be the biggest outcomes from this coup to the lives of ordinary people in the country? [00:28:33][37.0]
Leonardo Villalón: I think the domestic implications of this are absolutely central to how we think about the coup. And the standard way to say it has to be this is a significant step back towards Niger’s progress towards democracy. And I think that’s true. And I think it’s really true because despite the fact Niger, since the early 1990s when most of West Africa undertook transitions to democracy, Niger was always presented as a very unstable case. They had a series of coups. We went, in fact, in Niger from what they called the “Third Republic” in 1993 to the one that was just overthrown that was the “Seventh Republic.” So it was seen as instability. And in fact, if you go back and look at that, you see that each of those crisis points was punctuated by an institutional blockage that then led to a discussion and a debate about attempts to fix the institutions to make them work better. And there is a really good argument to be made that Niger was progressing along those lines. It’s not to say that democracy was perfect. It was certainly wasn’t. President Bazoum’s election may in fact have been fraudulently won, at least at the margins. But the institutions were gradually being put in place. And those institutions are the institutions that make it possible to envisage a democratic system in the good sense. And so, you know, I’ve heard and we’ve seen recently, well, you know, we have this focus on on the form of democracy, but not the substance. I think it’s a little bit of a false distinction. It’s true. You can have a form without substance, but I’m not sure you can have substance without form. I think you need to have institutions and try to make those institutions work well so that then you can start having states that respond to the needs and desires of populations. By any standards, this coup is an interruption of a progress, of a process that Niger has been engaged in for 30 years. If we look back at the last coup in Niger, it was in 2010 and it happened after a transition where a government was the freely elected and the president served two, five year terms, and then he tried to change the Constitution unconstitutionally to stay in power. And so he was overthrown and a whole new transition took place. And it created this government…So my point is that these periodic crises of the past have actually been part of an iterative process of, I think, building state institutions and democratic institutions and with all the caveats about their imperfection and their limitations and what it means. And this has been interrupted, and I think that’s a setback. And I think it’s likely to be a setback for the lives of the Nigerian people.
I don’t mean to be overly rosy about democracy. It’s also possible that in large parts of the country, people will hardly notice the coup and hardly notice what happens after the coup, because the vast majority of Nigerians are spending their time attempting simply to make a living, to feed their children and feed themselves under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. And the state presence is minimal. And in many parts and everything that the state does, whether it’s security or health or education, is very limited. And there’s good reason to be critical of that. And so we need to recognize that this progress of democracy only first helps and is is felt by a proportion of the population, perhaps a limited portion, perhaps of urban, perhaps more the intellectual elite and whatever. But I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that in the longer run it is that which allows you to sort of gradually build a state that is functional and that responds to the needs of people, and that does attempt to provide things like education, health care and security, and that expands its effort to do so.
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